Four former minor league teams sue MLB

NEW YORK – Four minor league teams that lost their major league affiliations prior to the 2021 season have filed an antitrust lawsuit against MLB, using a law firm that has represented players’ unions.

The parent companies of the Staten Island Yankees, Tri-City Valley Cats, Norwich Sea Unicorns and Salem-Keizer Volcanoes filed a lawsuit Monday in United States District Court in Manhattan, accusing the baseball commissioner’s office of violating the Sherman Antitrust Act.

MLB ended the Professional Baseball Agreement that governed the relationship between the majors and minors at the end of 2020, after minor league seasons were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Members were reduced from a minimum of 160 to 120; the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, which had governed the minors since 1901, was closed; and MLB took over the running of the minors.

“The acquisition plan is nothing less than a bare horizontal agreement to cement MLB’s dominance over all of professional baseball,” the suit says. “There is no plausible pro-competitive justification for this anti-competitive deal.”

The lawsuit alleges that MLB made decisions to retain minor league teams based on whether they were owned by major clubs or were politically owned, citing Ohio Governor Mike DeWine’s interest in the Class A North Carolina Asheville Tourists.

MLB said at the time that the changes would reduce travel and improve conditions for minor league players. The league had no immediate comment on Monday.

Staten Island was an affiliate of the Yankees, Norwich (Connecticut) a Detroit farm team and Tri-City (Troy, New York) an affiliate of Houston, all in the short-season New York-Penn League. Salem-Keizer (Oregon) was a San Francisco farm team in the Northwest League short season.

The United States Supreme Court granted baseball an antitrust exemption in a 1922 case involving the Federal League, when Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in a decision that baseball was not interstate commerce but displays exempt from antitrust laws. The Supreme Court upheld the decision in a 1953 case involving New York Yankees minor league player George Toolson and in the 1972 Curt Flood decision, saying any changes should come from Congress.

Congress passed the Curt Flood Act of 1998, signed by President Bill Clinton, to say that antitrust laws apply to Major League Baseball, which affects the employment of Major League Baseball players at the Major League level.

The attorneys included in the lawsuit were David J. Lender, Eric S. Hochstadt, and Zachary A. Schreiber of Weil, Gotshal & Manges, a law firm that has long represented player unions, and James W. Quinn and Emily M. Burgess from Berg and Androphy. Quinn is a former head of litigation at Weil.